From Crayons to watercolors: Magnolia painter pursues her lifelong yen for art, with surprising results

Magnolia resident Carolyn Bowers launched her personal dream much the same way other folks do - as a kid.

Born in Selah, a small orchard and farming community outside Yakima, Bowers was drawn to the scribbles she saw unfolding on the paper as she doodled with crayons, markers or chalk, in class or at home. Somewhere amidst the swirls and loops of color, Bowers caught a glimpse of what she wanted to do with her life.

Now, half a century later, the 56-year-old artist is seeing her dream come true. In her first juried show, Bowers' watercolor painting - entitled "A Royal Hawaiian Afternoon" - brought home a first-place award in the competitive Eastside Association of Fine Arts 28th Annual Exhibition held this November. The show featured 113 pieces from Pacific Northwest artists working in a variety of media, from sculpture to photography to painting.

"Artists from Bellingham to Portland make this a very strong, all-encompassing show with all painting media represented," said Ted Pankowski, a co-chair for the competition.

Considering the range of talent vying for first place, Bowers was understandably surprised when she received a phone call from Pankowski informing her the jury had shown a preference for her painting.

"I was thrilled, or course," said Bowers. "But I was shocked as well."

Seeming to come out of nowhere, Bowers apparently caught the local art community a little off guard, with some people wondering: "Carolyn who?" Having never entered a juried show before this, her work was known mainly to a select group of friends and family.

From this one might get the impression Bowers is an overnight success story. Yet, as is often the case, the overnight success only comes after years - even decades - of hard work.

Back in her school days, Bowers wanted to be an artist, but her father discouraged the dream, suggesting instead something a little more lucrative in the long term.

"I wasn't really encouraged to pursue art as a profession," Bowers said. "It just wasn't something my family thought I could make money at."

Following her dad's advice, but not giving up entirely on her notions of artistry, Bowers moved to Seattle and attended the University of Washington. There she received a bachelor's degree in architecture, finding satisfaction in blueprints and pencils rather than oils and canvas.

As an architect, Bowers traveled around the world - from Washington to Alaska, to New Mexico, Hawaii and even Peru. In her spare time, when she wasn't designing buildings, Bowers dabbled in art, experimenting with oils, acrylics and pastels.

About ten years ago, after having moved to Seattle, she received a postcard advertising a workshop in watercolor painting given by then Seattle resident Jan Heart. The medium struck a chord in her.

"I just had this big 'A-ha!'," Bowers said. "Kind of one of those epiphany things where I just knew I'd found my medium."

Since then she has been learning the tools of the trade, while drawing on scenes from her travels as inspiration for landscapes and impressionistic works. Bowers said that only now, after years of experimenting, is she finally comfortable with her ability to render on canvas the images she sees in her head.

"Painting is a language and I'm finally getting to say that," she said. "I'm finally getting to say 'this is who I am' in a way. Because this is how I see the world. It's a filter that I use to filter my impressions and reactions to what I see and I try to capture that in a painting."

As for what she sees, Bowers said that she generally paints scenes or objects that strike her as unusual or interesting. In her world, even the most mundane image can contain some eye-catching detail that inspires her to rush home and break out the pigments.

On a recent vacation to Hawaii, for instance, Bowers was re-visiting the Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki. Constructed in the 1920s, the hotel's design appealed to her architectural interests. She had planned on going to the hotel with her husband for lunch and mai-tais. But when she arrived, Bowers was struck by the shadows of palm trees cast onto the side of the building by the afternoon sun.

"Oh my god, I've got to paint that," she recalled thinking.

She took a picture of the scene. Instead of merely having lunch, Bowers had located the inspiration for what would become an award-winning painting only six months later.

Not all of her ideas come from places as exotic as Hawaii. Bowers and her husband live a block away from Discovery Park, and according to her, there is plenty of striking scenery to be enjoyed in there. In particular, she wants to do a painting of the park's madrona trees.

"I've done a lot of hiking and camping in my life," she said, "and I love to be in the woods and next to the water. So I'm very inspired by the Northwest and other places that I've been in my life."

Bowers may have spent the first 40-or-so years of her life as an architect, but she fully intends on spending her remaining time with a paint brush in hand. Despite the recent award, she feels that she's "just beginning" all the same.

"I'll be around," Bowers said. "I'm just going to do it until I drop."

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